The Fire in your Midst

—Ryan J. Ogrodowicz

The English noun "cosmos" is a cognate of the Greek kosmeo, which means to "put in order so as to appear neat or well organized" (BDAG, 560). God "cosmosed" the universe from nothing in six days by his divine word. Animals, humanity, vegetation, and lights-all of creation reveals God's concern about order and structure.

With Genesis, other Mosaic books contain detailed instructions on a variety of topics including temple furnishings, offerings, feast days, childbirth, loving the neighbor, sexual ethics, mold, and leprosy. We don't need to get lost in the minutia to see amidst the precision and details surrounding the cultic lives of ancient Israel that God was no stranger to order and distinction among people, places and things, especially regarding worship. Order and distinction of divinely mandated categories abound in the Old Testament, particularly in the Mosaic books where one frequently encounters words like clean, unclean, holy, and profane.

One such holy object of grave importance was the meeting place of nomadic Israel, the tent of meeting. It was consecrated by God and so considered sacred ground (Exod 29:43-46). Grain, sin, and guilt offerings were holy foods consumed only by priests in the sacred tabernacle (Lev 6:26). They were holy by God's decree and reserved for men consecrated as his priests. Also, the ark of the testimony, the altar of incense and burnt offerings, along with other temple furnishings, were consecrated by God, and like certain foods they were instructed to be handled only by the sacred (holy) priests (cf. Exod 30:26-27).

Far from harmless descriptions, God took the holy and profaned serious enough to enact the death penalty when these lines were crossed (Num 18:32). The terms "clean" and "unclean" applied to people and things, such as the postpartum woman and leper, both of whom were unclean until declared clean by the priest. The peace offering was holy food for those outside the priesthood, but a penalty still ensued if it was eaten wrongly. Not only was the unclean person barred from eating the holy peace offering, but doing so warranted exclusion from the congregation (Lev 6:20), a punishment applying also to those touching anything unclean either an object, person or beast (Lev 6:21). The unfortunate case of Aaron's sons clearly demonstrates God's holy demand that man approach him correctly (Lev 10:1-3ff).

The above categories existed for the relationship between God and his people. Tangible holiness was in the midst of the congregation; a holy God dwelled amongst his people set apart to be his own. Since the fall, there is a problem for sinners regarding holiness, namely God is holy and man is not. Man is defiled by sin and in need of divine holiness and purity only God provides. The distinctions between clean and unclean, holy and profane, come from the God's overarching injunction in Scripture for holiness: "You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev 19:2). Holiness needs separation from the unclean, as seen in the reason God gives for keeping his consecrated people apart from her neighbors: "You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine" (Lev 20:26). In addition, despite debate on why exactly some animals are deemed clean over and above others, Scripture is explicit on the reason for God's division between the clean and unclean in the animal world:

For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore by holy, for I am holy" (Lev 11:44-45).

While the Mosaic cultic rites and practices are discontinued in the New Testament and fulfilled by Jesus (Matt 5:17-20), the relationship between God and man expressed in these rites continues to the present. For ancient Israel, their problem was the same for us today: how do sinners become holy before a holy God? God's Word established ways in which they could worship in faith for the forgiveness of sins, just as Christians are called to worship by faith in Christ. In the Israelite system safeguards were in place to prevent inadvertent contact with God's holiness, such as the postpartum woman's ban from the holy place until she was clean, along with people afflicted with skin diseases (Lev 12-14). Lest we forget, a holy God was on the scene in the midst of sinful people. The distinctions and separation created by the divine word would've been a constant reminder for the people that God is a consuming fire of holiness demanding a proper interaction from sinners in need of his holiness and cleansing from sin.

The sacrificial system and many other things in the Mosaic books have found their terminus in the person of Christ. But the essence of God's holiness hasn't changed and neither has the sinner. God is as holy today as He was for ancient Israel, and humanity is just as sinful today as in the years BC. We must not forget the God we worship is a holy God, a "consuming fire" (Heb 12:29). Christian worship involves gathering in the holy name of Jesus Christ; our holy God is in our midst as we serve him in faith receiving the holiness he imparts by his word. While not having holy relics, we have something far greater in that we have the holy word of God, the "most holy" of relics. Luther: "the Word of God is the true holy relic above all holy objects. Indeed, it is the only one we Christians know and have."1 When the word of God is on the scene, Christ and his holiness are present. In short, we still encounter a holy God when we worship, and we are still sinners gathered to receive the forgiveness and sanctification he promises to impart by his grace through faith in Jesus.

This needs to be kept in mind when discussing the worship life of the Church. The vacuous terms "contemporary" and "liturgical" are often flippantly tossed around in worship debates, complete with subjective understandings of each. If the organ is liturgical, then the electric guitar is contemporary. Vestments are traditional, so Abercrombie is modern. Candles are historic, and spotlights are hip. None of this receives explicit commands from Scripture. As for what instruments are worthy in the Divine Service, I remember a pastor quoting from Psalm 150 as his reason for including a variety of instruments in worship. The organ was not one of them.

A question that I believe does not get asked enough is whether or not the worship service conveys to sinners that in their midst is a holy God? Does reverence and awe flow not from ecstatic light shows and theatrics, but the truth of God graciously bestowing his forgiveness and holiness to faithful sinners? Does a worship service mark the distinction between the sacred and the profane, the clean and the unclean-in other words, the distinction between a sinful world and the holy Christ? A sanctuary needs to be just what the word itself implies: a holy place because the holy name of God is invoked at the beginning of service, not a room adorned with worldly trappings muddling distinctions between the sacred and profane. Architecture and worship styles can certainly help teach and appeal to the senses in a way that aids the hearer in believing when the holy name of God is invoked, there is the holy Christ, and you, O sinner, are forgiven and sanctified on account of his all-atoning sacrifice.

The Christian is not of the world. The holiness of God is not the kingdom of darkness, but something different, something distinct, just like his holy church. In the framework of biblical holiness, steeples, crosses, and stained glass mark distinction and difference very well, as do candles and vestments. So did a tent of meeting, altar, blood, robes, and gold-plated ark. They imply nonconformity to an ever-changing creation, and in the same way our holy God doesn't change before sinners (Mal 3:6). Just as the tent of meeting and worship life of ancient Israel was strictly demarcated from the surrounding cultures by divine decree, the church is also different from the world in that it is the place where the holy one meets his people to sanctify them by grace through faith. We keep the Sabbath holy by going to where holiness has promised to be found-in and through the person of Jesus Christ. This is as different from the world as light is from darkness. Erase these marks and distinctions by conforming to the world through architecture and the worship life, and one does little to express to sinners that the gathering place is where a holy God meets and consecrates his people. He is holy, and you are not. And that's why we come, to hear and receive what every sinner needs: holiness.


The Rev. Ryan Ogrodowicz serves as pastor of Victory in Christ Lutheran Church in Newark, Texas.


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  1. LC I: 91.